Rethinking the unthinkable - by Jasjit Singh Back   Home  
How Pakistan’s nuclear strategy went for a six
What India’s mobilisation of its full military power on the borders with accompanying political threats after December 13 had only partially achieved, Pakistan’s nuclear sabre rattling appears to have completed it.

Except that the developments are almost entirely in India’s favour. Pakistan has climbed down to start putting an end to cross-border terrorism of which a permanent end to infiltration is an essential pre-requisite. Equally important, the major powers of the world now say that this terrorism not only emanates from Pakistan, but that the ISI is linked to jehadi groups including the banned ones which perpetrate brutal violence against innocents in India. The crisis is far from over but some tentative conclusions can be drawn at this stage.

What galvanised the international diplomacy into high gear was the marked increase in the frequency and pitch of Pakistan’s nuclear threats. These had been held out earlier too. But the regularity with which this was being done since the second half of May finally got the world worried. These threats ranged from demonstration firing of three types of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, General Musharraf himself holding out nuclear threats and his diplomats drawing up doomsday scenarios for the benefit of the international community.

What made the current threats more poignant was India’s position that it would maintain its no-first-use nuclear strategy, and resort to calibrated military operations across the Line of Control in what Prime Minister Vajpayee termed the ‘decisive war’ against terrorism, pointing out that lightening may strike even without (war) clouds — a metaphorical reference to sudden surgical strikes.

There are two main aspects that deserve attention. First, Pakistani strategy of nuclear blackmail has produced results, though not in a manner entirely favourable to Pakistan since it has had to give up its favourite strategy of terrorism. Historical evidence shows that Pakistan held out clearly identifiable nuclear threats in 1984, 1987, 1990 and 1994 when no war situations existed and were meant to derive credibility and legitimacy for its clandestine nuclear programme.

After all a deterrent is value-less if the adversary does not believe that you even have capabilities! It held out nuclear threats again in 1999 during the Kargil war and now repeatedly almost ad nauseam in 2002, when a warlike situation existed. In both cases its goal was to get the international community to intervene; in the former case to regularise a new ceasefire line east of the existing LOC, and now to get international mediation on Kashmir.

Pakistan realised that if India employed its superior conventional military in a calibrated manner this would raise the costs of its traditional policy tremendously. While it threatened strikes with nuclear weapons, it was clear that they would remain a paper tiger since Pakistan’s very survival would then be under question. This would be a war in slow motion with incremental employment of force. New Delhi’s strategy would be to keep up military pressure for attrition over time.

Sheer deployments have been costing the Pakistani exchequer nearly 22 per cent higher military expenditure (compared to India’s 2 per cent increase). Indian military power has remained far superior to what Pakistan could field, especially in the air and at sea. Pakistan’s goal of holding forth nuclear threats was obviously to get the international community, especially the US, involved more deeply in the present crisis.

And in this it has succeeded although the central issue of such involvement now is terrorism and the risk of war, not Kashmir. A secondary goal, focused on the domestic audience, was to provide the facade for the General’s retreat from the covert war in J&K, even if tactically.

However, the realisation would no doubt soon sink in that while there may be a partial success in tactical terms, Pakistan’s overall nuclear strategy lies in tatters.

Some of Pakistan’s perceptive analysts had cautioned the government about this for quite some time. The thinking in the Pakistani army for nearly three decades has been that nuclear weapons would provide an immutable guarantee against any use of superior conventional forces by India and hence provide the opportunity for its ‘low cost’ sub-conventional war through terrorism.

Even the use of elite army troops in Kargil was premised on the same assumption. The flaw in the strategy was clear for anyone who cared to examine it. Employment of conventional military power to achieve discriminate and limited political and military objectives is feasible by carefully crafting its use so that the adversary is not hurt excessively at any one moment, but the cumulative effect would start to tell over time.

Pakistani strategy of ‘offensive-defence’, where offensive would be through jehadi cross-border terrorism and assured defence by its nuclear weapons, failed because it was assumed that India’s options were limited to a full-scale war or a covert war.

The former, it was believed, would be deterred by a nuclear threat, and the latter would only give greater legitimacy to its own strategy. But it did not take into account the adversary’s ability to evolve counter options. India’s answer was that limited war with conventional military power is feasible, and winnable below the nuclear overhang. Except that this would not be the war, limited or otherwise, that people were used to. This no doubt requires political and military goals to be aligned toward that end. Dramatic victories and defeats are relics of history in a nuclear world.

Pakistan will have to reconcile itself to the reality that its nuclear weapons do not provide the type of deterrent it had calculated on. It will have to factor in the probability of a ‘salami-slicing’ strategy where Indian conventional force could be applied at a moderate level, in modular form, but spread over time denying Pakistan an opportunity for a nuclear response which actually would only jeopardise its very existence. This does not mean the risks of nuclear weapons have disappeared. All it implies is that we have entered a new phase in the nuclear scenario where a lot is yet to be learnt.
Published in ExpressIndia